Saving the Breeding Grounds of the Pacific Gray Whale

NRDC led the international fight to keep industrial development out of Mexico’s pristine San Ignacio Lagoon.

With its warm, shallow waters bounded by vast stretches of uninhabited desert, Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon is a paradise for Pacific gray whales. Every winter, hundreds of these 40-ton marine mammals make an epic 10,000-mile swim from their summer feeding grounds above the Arctic Circle to the coast of Baja California. It is the longest known migration of any mammal on earth. After they reach their destination, the whales breach the surface of the clear, green waters, spy-hop, interact with tourists on small fishing boats, and nurture newborn calves within this pristine and sheltered southern sea.

A Pacific gray whale in the San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California
Photo by Ryan Harvey

But without the sustained efforts of NRDC, our Mexican partners, and other international environmental activists for years before the turn of the century, the whales would now be arriving each December to a much different scene. In 1994, the Mitsubishi Corporation entered into a partnership with the Mexican government to build a massive salt production plant at the San Ignacio Lagoon that would have had grave ecological consequences. The $100 million facility would have been the largest salt plant in the world, covering 116 square miles (about three times the size of the District of Columbia). To accommodate large container ships, the project also would have included the construction of a pier stretching a mile into the Bay of Whales, directly in the path of the Pacific gray whales.

“San Ignacio Lagoon is a World Heritage site, a Mexican biosphere reserve, a whale sanctuary, and a migratory bird sanctuary. There are more than 300 animal species that live in the area, including the magnificent Pacific gray whale,” says Joel Reynolds, NRDC senior attorney and codirector of the San Ignacio Lagoon campaign. “Without any doubt, it is the wrong place for the world’s largest industrial salt factory.”

NRDC garnered the support of an international coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, scientists, and consumers—a total of more than 50 stakeholders—to face down Mitsubishi and stop the incoming ecological disaster. The lagoon lies within one of the largest ecological preserves in Latin America, the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, but the battle to protect it from the proposed salt plant would still take five years to win. More than a million people signed petitions and sent letters and e-mails to Mitsubishi, and 34 world-renowned scientists, including nine Nobel laureates, joined the fight before the company and the Mexican government finally decided to scuttle the plan in 2000.

“This victory represents a triumph of an empowered citizenry over one of the world’s most powerful companies,” says NRDC senior attorney and campaign codirector Jacob Scherr. “Through e-mails and newspaper ads, we were able to galvanize people all over the world.”

Today, San Ignacio is the last whale lagoon along the Baja coast undisturbed by industrial intrusion. NRDC is proud of the role it played in safeguarding this crucial ecosystem, and our work there continues today with support for projects providing San Ignacio communities with sustainable economic alternatives to harmful development. Through the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance, NRDC has helped purchase conservation easements on more than 141,000 acres of land on the southern edge of the lagoon and secured protections for another 199,000 acres of Mexican federal lands to the north, as well as 150 miles of lagoon coastline. Mitsubishi may be gone, but the fight for permanent protection goes on. And so, too, do the Pacific gray whales.

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